Tough Love With Alcoholics-Changed Behavior Is Not Cruelty

When we begin to learn how to have tough love with an addict or alcoholic, many think it is an act of cruelty. Most of us are caretakers by nature. When we are in love with an alcoholic, taking care of them is one dysfunctional ways we express our affection to them. This behavior parallels with the concept of enabling.

When someone in a relationship with an alcoholic begins to attend therapy group meetings to help them cope with an alcoholic, usually they hear about the importance of detaching with love early on.

This is something that they generally struggle with because they are usually very angry and frustrated by the time they seek help for the situation. When I first heard about loving an alcoholic unconditionally, I thought to myself; “there is now way I’ll be able to do that.” I was furious at how she was ruining our family.

It is possible to love an alcoholic and be tough with them at the same time, thus we have the expression “tough love.”  This type of situation requires learning how to set boundaries with an alcoholic. Those parameters can be established through kindness, love and with inner strength.

Mastering tough love requires learning how to communicate with an alcoholic/addict differently. As we begin to set healthy boundaries to protect ourselves from the emotional abuse that gets hurled at us, we learn how to do this by keeping our composure. When communicating a boundary to the alcoholic, we might say something like; “I love you, but please do not ever treat me with that kind of disrespect ever again.”

With firmness in our voice (not anger) and a smile on our face, we begin to say what we mean without saying things mean. Changing the way we communicate with an alcoholic is only one way we can demonstrate tough love.

It is when we start detaching from being a caretaker and enabler that tough love is really expressed. When we stop doing things like loaning them money, paying their bills, giving them rides all over town, lying for them and doing everything to make their life soft, and wonderful, then we are beginning to express tough love.

When we learn how to say NO without feeling guilty, then we are on the road to expressing tough love to an alcoholic. Usually they get angry and fuss at us when we start detaching, setting boundaries and refuse to be their enablers anymore. This is why we need to learn how to say “no” to them and say nothing else. There is no reason that we have to explain why we have said no, it is our right to do so. When we can be self-disciplined in this way, we will argue less. The person with the drinking problem my want to argue over our setting boundaries and ways of detaching, but we can choose not to argue.

The trick of all of this “tough love” behavior on our part is founded on methods of expressing love to an alcoholic while being tough at the same time. There is a delicate balance to be maintained when we start to change how we interact with the person suffering from alcoholism.

You cannot learn and start doing these things on your own. Having the support of people who understand what you are dealing with and know how to coach you through the new changes is vitally important. The only place to establish close friendships with people who are wise about the characteristics of alcoholics is through getting involved in support group meetings for friends and family members if alcoholics. Al-anon is a great place to get started today handling things differently today!

To wrap things up, we have talked about learning how to communicate differently, the need for setting boundaries and the importance of not enabling the alcoholic. We briefly made reference to how we are caretakers by nature as well. Each of these subjects have individual techniques and methods that can be learned which will help us love an alcoholic while protecting ourselves from being too awfully hurt in the process. Using them altogether is how we express tough love in situations where alcoholism is present. This takes time to master all of the different metods of dealing with an alcoholic.

There is one rule I want to share with you that can help you while expressing tough love to an alcoholic. As you are detaching and setting boundaries, make sure that you never argue with the alcoholic. That’s the rule you MUST learn to live by. At all costs, we do whatever it takes to not fight with them. Usually, this means that we are forced to avoid them through leaving the house or going into another room, closing and locking the door behind us. In these situations we use phrases like:

I do not want to discuss this right now.
Let me think about that.
You are probably right.
That’s your opinion.

These are just a few phrases that can help you avoid getting into a shouting match with the problem drinker. The key to using these one-liners is realized in not saying anything else. This requires yet another skill, “learning how to keep our mouths shut.”

There are many other short sentences that can be used during the process of detaching from an alcoholic with tough love. There are many more revealed in the coping with alcoholics audio lessons.

A final word, find an alcoholism support group meeting to attend today designed to aid friends and family members handle the affects of alcoholism on their lives. I promise that you will be glad that you did.
Contributing Author: Timothy Odum On

67 comments to Tough Love With Alcoholics-Changed Behavior Is Not Cruelty

  • terry

    Yes .. they told him when he 1st went to rehab ( one of many ) that alchol is affecting the way his brain reacts to it. His nuro sensor of the brain or something,and his short term memory. When he use to drink it was straight whiskey but he could still keep going,now I see a difference in his actions his movements and it really hits him hard. Drunk very fast. He’s not really functional at all. They told him alot of times that happens to people who have quit for long periods and then start back up. It messes with the wiring I guess .

  • Nellie

    Hugs and love to you Terry. One of the worst things I have seen was my frail, little 60+ year old neighbour, being chased down the street by her alcoholic (ex-cop) husband. He threw a pitch fork at her back, and missed by inches. She ran and screamed, and another neighbour tried to intervene. The man beat the Good Samaritan instead. He had never done anything like this before – he just snapped after a solid bender.
    Please keep yourself safe. Your precious life is important to all of us here in the world.
    Happy Christmas and may 2016 be the best year of your life.

  • Susan

    Wow, thanks so much to everyone w/ such valuable advice. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. My sister has been trying to contact me non stop w/ texts and calls. I have been ignoring her which isn’t as difficult to do as I thought. I still want to cry when the phone rings. Her texts ask me if I have anything she can sell and that she owes $100 for late rent and what not. I just ignored until she said she was in the cab going to the hospital for treatment b/c she was shaking and needed something to come off of the alcohol. She gave me an update while there many times until she said she was going to her detox room. I then texted and asked if she was settled and if she received the medication yet but, since then, I have had no response and will not ask anything further about her hospital stay. Peculiar thing is that I saw she had been on Facebook many times while supposedly in her detox room and she was posting funny videos before she even called the cab to take her to the hospital. I want to support her (non-monitarily)but I just don’t trust she is even in the hospital since I have been taken advantage of so much. I am calling the 2 hospitals in her city today. Don’t know if they will tell me if she is a patient there or not but I’ll give it a shot. She will not have money to pay rent for January and she will be destitute. I will not give any money to her. She has to reach her rock bottom and face the consequences. I completely agree and taking it day by day to see how she handles her rock bottom. My family and I have always worried about suicide with her but I know there is absolutely nothing I can do anymore. So very sad. I can’t thank you all enough for your support, comments and advice. One piece of advice that keeps sticking with me that I will never forget is to never work harder than the addict in their recovery. Every one of you are angels for taking the time to respond. I put all the responses in a mail folder and will read them many times over.

  • Veronica

    I have 3 children who are…were for 1 who has passed…alcoholics. Now joining them are grandchildren. I have helped too many times. So…I know what you are going thru and have gone thru.

  • C


    I, too, understand what you are going through with your sister. It is unbelievably difficult to watch a loved one not take care of their welfare. And, for many families, it is a financial stress to try and help them.

    It is so wonderful that the people who share their stories on this site care so much. I have learned a lot and regained my sanity! You will get through this very difficult time with the support of everyone here. Please let us know how you are doing.

    Wishing you peaceful and happy holidays.

  • Laurie

    Susan, usually most detox centers have rules of no phones. They take them off the clients as soon as they wnter so that they can focus on recovery. Usually there is no contact for the first week or so it deoends on the length of the stay re contact. But im more than sure its a big rule of no phones on campus.

  • Laurie

    Worry is like a rocking chair it gives us something to do but gets us nowhere.

    Trying to control an alcoholic is like eating laxatives and expecting not to poop, it gets very messy very quickly.

    Communicating with an al oholic is like eating jello with chopsticks. Pointless and irritating.

  • Patti

    Susan, I’m asking God and his angels to watch over both you and your sister, during this difficult period! I was going to call it a crises, but my AH has so many of them, I’m tired of using that term! I’m so glad you’ve heard about Letting Go, Letting God and Letting the AH handle their own situations, as that’s the only way they can “hit bottom” and Learn from their mistakes!!!! It is hard to “hands off”, but the Serenity Prayer is a good way to quickly remind yourself to avoid stressing along with your sister. Hope you find/have family and friends you can share your feelings with, so you don’t feel so isolated! Al Anon Adult Family Groups have been extremely helpful to me, and made me feel better than I’ve felt in several years. May God bless you and your family with Peace and Comfort this Holiday!

  • Patti

    Amen Katie! Due to my AH’s nightly drinking, we only make love every 6 months or so. He always wants it when he is wrecked, and the idea disgusts me…Tried it once and Never Again. When he is sober I reiterate my stance, and now he occasionally stays sober so we can. I also sleep in a different room when he drinks and recently began rewarding his sober evenings by sleeping with him. He seems to be trying hard, but still many nights of drunken-ess in my home. I’ve found tools to help me stay sane: Escape to another area of the house, to read, listen to music or phone my friends. I also go out more, leaving him home.

  • I wonder what our Alcoholics are doing while we support one another?
    Do you think they are sharing their concern for our health and our welfare? HeLL no…
    They are looking for our money, our food, our home, and first,
    They are focusing on that DRINK.
    We got the toad.

  • Kelly

    I am new to the program. However, this site has already helped me. Take care of yourself period.

  • Valerie

    I have been married only 2years. My 2nd marriage. My husbands drinking is totally ruining this marriage. He is never violent and maintains this makes him better than my first husband , it doesn’t.
    He argues with me because our sex life is non existent, blaming me. But I cannot. Bring myself to be intimate with him, he doesn’t shower for days, says it’s my fault he drinks ( I know it isn’t) I think he thinks I have a switch to just. Click on and off, tried to tell him being intimate isn’t just sex. It’s having fun together, hugs closeness sharing silly times/laughs together. Being fair with one another and being respectful of each other. I love him, but I hate what alcohol does to him, it’s his choice to drink and when he does he says that I hate him. I don’t I hate the effect alcohol has, but it’s no use telling him. I get frustrated because I am repeating myself over and over,but he doesn’t remember.
    I attended an AA family support meeting, wasn’t for me at the time. But I am becoming tired of living like this, but i don’t want to leave him. But as time goes on its getting more and more frustrating.

  • Paula

    Hi Valerie,
    I’m going out on a limb here because I don’t know you or your case but, it sounds to me like your husband is not emotionally available, and may have fear of intimacy. Not everyone can give emotionally, there is a lot to consider in a persons past.The way they were raised, He probably hasn’t had relationships that have lasted very long, and the idea that he doesn’t have what it takes to make you happy, might be an excuse he uses to drink. All you have to do is exist, and for him to be fond of you,to become an excuse to him. This sounds similar to my relationship, except luckily for me mine loves his bath. I don’t talk to him while he is drinking, not about anything important, it’s a waste of breath. He tries really hard to stop and right now is not drinking.In my mind I am always half way out the door while he is drinking. This can be very hard on your self esteem, so if it makes you feel unworthy and if there is no indication that he can improve or stop drinking, you need to consider your quality of life first and decide if it is worth it. If you find that all you do is sacrifice and never get anything in return and if he never accepts responsibility for the poor way things are going, it doesn’t look good, and you need to make your needs and boundaries known to him and unmovable. If he is truly good hearted he will hear your demands and try to fill them. If he isn’t trying anything, you need to put your foot down. It’s not “no use” telling him you hate the effect alcohol has on him, you have to tell him. He has to know that he is a totally different person when he drinks, and that you may as well be alone when that guy is there. Also point out that it is most of the time, that you are alone. Alcoholics are very sensitive people to disapproval, so try to be sensitive when you tell him, just like he is a child, but he has to know how you feel, also don’t even try to tell him while he is drinking. It’s a waste of breath. Good luck sister.

  • Alyson

    My brother, who is fourteen years older than I, he now in his sixties and I just turned 50, went to tough love so that he could help me, an alcoholic for many years. He was exceptionally tough and I was very afraid of him, even after my road of recovery began some seven years ago. He has used this approach to win favour of my parents and after they died six years ago he is financially controlling me and using the same tough love technique, except now he has become an abusive bully in every way toward me and the fedicury duty he has, and there is no love in his behavior or conduct toward me and he has told me about his dislike for me as a person, even though I have been sober for some years. I think he has become fanatical and wants to retain his control over me. I now have a pending court case against him and other two brothers who are defrauding our family trust and missapropriating funds that legally belong to me. How do I get him to realize that this behavior is no longer acceptable and will not be tolerated anymore,even though I have tried so hard to communcte with him,and to say that I am thankful for his help in getting me right, he is now just a manipulative bully, and hates me even more as I have had the courage to stand up to him, but he is going to fight me tooth and nail anyway. Any advice please, as this is going to get worse.

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